Leadership Lessons From 2000 Hours Of Teaching German

Over the last two and a half years I have taught well over 2000 hours of German language and culture mainly to people coming from regions of crisis and failed leadership.
I have often thought about how I can serve them in the best way possible. Over time I have learned to appreciate that this is about taking on the responsibility to lead from the heart:

“Leader: Anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential.”

Brené Brown

(1) Strengths, Struggles, Self-Care: Great Leadership Starts With Looking Inside

“Who we are is how we lead.”

Brené Brown

Strengths

If we know our strengths and are clear about our values, we can bring those to the table and lead and teach in the best way possible.

One of my strenghts is that I love to explore together with others. You can basically throw me in a room with people with a rough idea and we can figure out how something works and I learn how to teach it at the same time.

It took me a long time to understand that this is actually a massive strength. For a long time I thought that the proper way to teach is to prepare everything in detail.

When I finally had the courage to put the book and preparation aside from time to time and fully lean into curiosity and vulnerability, we experienced much more flow together.

Struggles

We all have our stories of hurt and insecurity.
If we own them, we can write our own ending.
If we don’t, they will get in the way everywhere.

Here is one of my stories:

I’ve stuttered as a kid, sometimes blocking me completely from sharing.

Nowadays it is much better, but sometimes when I am exited or nervous, it is nearly impossible for me to regulate the speed at which I am talking, I talk extremely fast and people have a hard time understanding what I say. And sometimes people tell me, but I cannot slow down.

It feels like a total loss of control sometimes. Extremely frustrating. Now imagine that happening in front of a room full of people who want to learn a language from you.

That can become a very shaming moment, depending on the story you are telling yourself.
In the beginning it was very easy for me to forget that I have studied 9 languages myself and am very clear about how effective language acquisition works.

Instead I went into stories like: “You cannot even talk slowly. You are just not good enough, and you never will be.” Or, whenever I was proud of experimenting with an innovative method: “Who do you think you are?”.

These are the two messages that shame sends: “You are not good enough!” and “Who do you think you are?” Did you ever hear these messages in your own life?

So the challenge for me was not to try to change the way I speak in these situations , but to remove the shame instead. To change the story I was telling myself.

At some point I managed to tell myself: “You are emotionally activated and then you tend to speak extremely fast. This is normal.” Surprisingly this made it much less of a problem.

I think it is like that with all our struggles.

Shame tries to convince us that we are alone in our struggles, when we actually are not.
Owning our stories helps us to write a different ending.

Self-Care

Leading takes energy, sometimes more than we have to give. We cannot serve well if we are depleted.

It is extremly important that we pay attention to our energy levels, understand what drains and renews our energy, set very clear boundaries and do whatever we need to recharge.

(2) Connection, Curiosity, Boundaries: Connect With Courage To Jumpstart Transformation

“People don’t care how much you know, until they know, how much you care.”

John C. Maxwell

Connection

Make an effort to connect to the people before you try to lead or teach them.

I am always on the lookout for what creates genuine connection. Recently I have learned how to quickly remember new names by using mnemonics, on one day I did it with two groups of about 15 people and it was a fun exercise to do. It shows them (a) that you are also learning and more importantly (b) that you care enough to get their name right.

There is more layers to it, for example there is physical component to connection, eye-contact and taking cultural awareness into account a handshake or a hug might be appropriate.

For creating a sense of connection within in a group, I have found a couple of songs that work like magic. They engage everybody on a deeply emotional level, creating a sense of belonging.

Curiosity

Curiosity is a superpower.

First of all, it allows us to listen with passion. One of the greatest gifts you can give to anybody is your undivided attention.

Curiosity also helps us to try things that might not work. If we are curious and stay attuned to our intuition, we can discover new paths together and truly get to know each others motivations and values, which are essential for effective leadership.

Boundaries

One thing I have learned while teaching is, that when you bring people together, there are very different dynamics that can develop. There are dynamics that can make it easier or harder to learn and grow.

We need to understand what creates these dynamics and then set and maintain very clear boundaries to ensure the best possible learning environment for everybody.

Setting boundaries is very simple, it means being clear about:

  1. What is OK,
  2. What is NOT OK,
  3. and WHY

Taking responsibility for setting and maintaining boundaries also prevents us from feeling resentment and it allows us extend the most generous interpretations to the words and actions of others.

(3) Model, Encourage, Tough Conversations: Scale By Building A Courageous Culture

“To scale daring leadership and build courage in teams and organizations, we have to cultivate a culture in which brave work, tough conversations, and whole hearts are the expectation, and armor is not necessary or rewarded. We have to be vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard, and respected.”

Brené Brown

Model

“People do what people see.”

John C. Maxwell

People learn from our words, but often they learn a lot more from the way we show up.

If we model vulnerability, courage, respect and boundaries, the people who we lead are very likely to follow suit. Courage is contagious.

Encourage

In the beginning I was very anxious, as I thought I had not enough to offer.

I quickly found out that helping people to grow, is much less about how much I do, but much more about creating conditions that enable learning.

Creating a space, where people feel safe enough to be vulnerable to start speaking and to gradually discover and develop their own voice.

Celebrating moments of courage and learning to nurture positive belief.

Helping people explore learning strategies that fit their personality and interests.

If you manage group dynamics well, you can unearth gold. In every group there is unlimited potential for cooperation.

Tough Conversations

“Daring leaders who live into their values are never silent about hard things.”

Brené Brown

Take religion, politics and sexuality; put it all into one discussion and people get into heated discussion and stop listening to each other; at the same time everybody desperately wants to be heard by the other.

Why does this happen? These topics touch deeply held beliefs, values, stories and often past hurts. Once we are emotionally triggered things can get out of control pretty quickly.

Yet openly talking about cultural norms and expectations are exactly what we need to talk about when people from different backgrounds get together in one team.

This is why we as leaders need to be very aware of our own stories and hurts, in order to be able to stay out of reactivity and maintain curiousity.

Understanding our own stories and emotions in general is the prerequisite to understanding others and for creating safe spaces for conversation.

Another reason to pay attention to people’s emotions is that when people feel unsafe or frustrated, it gets very hard for the brain to absorb new information.

The best tool I have found for effective and transformational leading is learning about emotions and leaning into my own vulnerability.

The best tool I have found for this is the book “Dare To Lead”. It shows that courage is not born but grown; and lays out the practical steps for learning to apply it in our very own lives. I cannot recommed it enough. It has transformed the way I live and lead.

I hope that you will choose and build your own courage. The people in your life need it.

2 Replies to “Leadership Lessons From 2000 Hours Of Teaching German”

  1. Love all your insights Gabriel, as well as your transparency and your ability to draw us in. I’m so looking forward to the Courageous Culture that you are building!

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